National Security & Defense

Trump’s Ascent Is More Bad News for the Syrian Opposition

Rebel fighters near Tell Rifaat in northern Aleppo province, October 22, 2016. (Reuters photo: Khalil Ashawi)
By tacitly supporting Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, Trump may be signing the death warrant for Syria’s beleaguered rebels.

Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in last week’s presidential election took many by surprise, both domestically and around the world. There was always a chance he would win the keys to the White House, but many — including, it seems, almost all the pollsters — had convinced themselves that his opponent Hillary Clinton would be the next leader of the free world.

How wrong they were. How immensely wrong they all were. Now there will be a frantic process of re-calibration, a fundamental reassessment of foreign policy in many world capitals and in Washington. Donald Trump won much support by running against D.C. orthodoxy, by being the candidate to oppose “business as usual.” It is reasonable to expect that he will change America’s role in world affairs dramatically.

Nowhere is this more important than in Syria, which represents the gravest humanitarian crisis of our age and also its most pressing geopolitical problem. Trump’s response to the Syrian Civil War has been nothing short of flippant. He has repeatedly voiced support for Russian president Vladimir Putin’s military intervention. He has suggested that the United States work with the tyrant Bashar al-Assad against ISIS. And even a charitable observer would conclude that he has shown little interest in the country’s refugee crisis, which to him is less a matter of burning humanitarian need and more an opportunity to demonstrate American strength. (His repeated suggestion that the United States not accept Syrian refugees, whom he considers a Trojan Horse in the making, has not endeared the country to the wider world.)

This stated disregard for Syrian lives, as well as Syrian wishes, is a prominent theme. It is present in Trump’s every assessment of the Syrian political situation. Trump has never wavered from supporting the policies pursued by Assad and Putin; in fact, he has made such support an effective condition of his foreign policy. In practical terms, that means abandoning the Syrian opposition, which needs outside help – particularly from the United States – if it is to survive Russian aerial attacks on civilian areas and war crimes committed by the regime.

Without American support — both moral and military — the rebellion cannot last forever. It has done a truly remarkable job of surviving in the face of incredible odds, but such miracles cannot be sustained in the long term. The humanitarian crisis will worsen; there will be massacres of the civilian population, very probably on a sectarian basis; and Aleppo, a shining beacon of the revolution and of the spirit of the Syrian people, will likely fall to regime forces and their Shia proxies. Nothing good can come from this eventuality. But unless Trump adopts an entirely different set of foreign-policy axioms, it is effectively inevitable.

Trump’s rejection of the Syrian opposition is an apparent reversal of American policy; for the last five years, the stated aim of the Obama administration has been that Assad step down and that a transition occur, in which, it is assumed, the regime will be replaced by a more democratic government.

In declaring his de facto support for Assad, all Trump is doing is making a tacit policy of the Obama administration more real.

But there is, at least as far as the administration is concerned, a vast gulf between rhetoric and reality. While the president has repeatedly called on Assad to step down, Syria’s dictator will undoubtedly outlast Obama’s time in office. The United States is the world’s only superpower; it is a military giant. If its leaders truly wanted Assad — an unpopular despot reduced to begging foreign allies (namely Russia and Iran) for military support — gone, he would be gone.

Thus one cannot attribute this negative prognosis — the proximate defeat of the revolution and the bloody reconquest of much of Syria by pro-Assad forces — to Trump alone. In declaring his de facto support for Assad, all Trump is doing is making a tacit policy of the Obama administration more real. Unlike Obama, who says he sheds tears about Syrians but does nothing to save them from the regime’s war crimes, Trump has no such moral pretentions. Though less ethical, this may be at least a little more honest.

In translating tacit support for Assad into active support, Trump is merely acknowledging the current thrust of U.S. policy toward the revolution and taking it a step further. Obama has had his chances to remove Assad — not least in 2013, when his ‘red line’ over chemical-weapon use was flagrantly crossed, as it has been many times since, by the regime. He did not take those chances, as all evidence suggests he never intended to, so the slaughter continues apace. Putin and Assad still have until January to terrorize Syria’s civilian populations and destroy its civil infrastructure, as they would have even if Clinton had won the presidency. The last months of Obama’s term in office will witness an onslaught which the United States will do nothing to prevent or punish.

None of this is to say that things would necessarily be different under Hillary Clinton. Since she effectively ran on the basis of Obama’s foreign policy — Iran deal and all — it would have been hard for her to diverge. Despite the suggestion that she is more hawkish than the president, it may well be the case that Syrians would have continued to die at the regime’s hand and drown in the Mediterranean no matter the election’s outcome.

As it stands, Trump’s presidency is mere months away, and things are looking bleak for Syrians. But perhaps, in some small way, there is still hope. The revolution will continue to fight on, and may still by some remarkable turn of events triumph over the regime, no matter the direction — new or not — of American foreign policy.

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